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2.1 Wayfinding -- finding my way without GPS

Last updated: Jul 07, 2022
This section continues an ongoing series about a journey away from smartphones. In this part and the next few sections, I explore the topic of wayfinding. This topic surfaced as I tried driving without using a digital map on my smartphone.

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Intro to some posts on wayfinding

Earlier in this series, as I formulated my strategies for living without the smartphone’s essential apps, I wondered how to get by without a mapping application (e.g., Google Maps or Apple Maps) while driving or biking. These apps, which rely on GPS to pinpoint your location on a map and give you turn-by-turn directions to a destination, were supposed to be one of those can’t-live-without-it apps.

In fact, when it first came out back in 2007, according to Bill Kilday, “Google Maps became the killer app of Apple’s killer new device: the iPhone, with Steve Jobs personally demanding the inclusion and implementation of Google Maps” (xvi).

And driving around the city, the need for GPS apps seemed essential. How the heck did people figure out the confusing sequences of unfamiliar turns, highway merges and exits, roads and avenues and roundabouts, etc., to reach their destination without the help of GPS? Further, weren’t these GPS apps one of those technology advancements that helped reduce congestion by routing people around slow traffic and warning you about hazards by identifying crashes ahead of time? By not using GPS apps, wouldn’t I be exposing myself to more congestion and crash risk?

And yet, something about GPS bothered me. Even though I’d been in Renton, Washington, for more than a year (having moved here from California), I still needed to route to common destinations that I’d driven to many times over. That Safeway just 1.5 miles away? Yeah, I still needed to route to it. I thought I was just direction-impaired; my wife always made fun of my sense of direction. If choosing routes without the help of GPS, I would naturally go in the opposite direction. North, south, east, west? No idea. Many times on my bike, I’d start riding a bit so that I could see the blue dot move along a map on my smartphone and know which direction I was actually heading. I realized this was pathetic but just attributed it to having a poor sense of direction. My wife had the compass in her head, not me.

As I started to route without my smartphone, I noticed an unexpected feeling surface every now and then—a sense of navigational certitude, a feeling of confidence and awareness of everything on the road. Not having to glance at a smartphone screen in the corner of my eye to know where I was going, but instead focusing more on the road and environment (the pedestrians, cyclists, cars, road construction, intersections, signs, trees, etc.), made me feel more connected and confident while driving. I found that I actually liked driving without GPS. I could be present in the driving experience.

After I reverted from my feature phone back to my smartphone, I still avoided using my phone’s mapping apps unless I got lost or was in a pinch and needed directions. Instead, I started looking more carefully at Google Maps on my computer to study the route beforehand. I learned the logic of streets and avenues, and which streets crossed the freeway, which were main streets and which were residential go-nowhere streets. It didn’t take long before I could confidently drive to most destinations in my area without my smartphone.

My brief experience of routing without GPS led to more interest in wayfinding. I started wondering if perhaps I could make navigation my strength rather than a weakness. I’d read many references to studies of London cabbies who had to learn 25,000 city streets (a feat called “The Knowledge”) to enter a privileged order of London cab drivers. The hippocampuses of these cab drivers were noticeably larger, as this part of the brain controls spatial reasoning, navigation, and memory. Perhaps by learning wayfinding (that is, navigating without GPS), I could increase my spatial aptitude and sense of direction?

I also wanted to better understand what I felt to be a paradox about the information age. We have an infinitely knowledgeable digital map in our pocket, something that can tell us exactly where we are and how to get to our destination. And yet, despite frequently following the directions provided through this infinitely knowledgeable digital map, my sense of direction and location had in fact deteriorated. I couldn’t navigate well on my own. Why didn’t the digital map make me a better navigator? Why didn’t any of the directions sink into my mind in memorable ways?

Perhaps the many routing recommendations from GPS apps are partly to blame. In Seattle/Renton/Kent, there are many different ways to get to the same place. If driving to work (from Renton to Fremont), there are half a dozen routes that GPS apps recommend depending on whether it will save me a minute here or there (e.g., 405 to I-5, 405 to 99, 405 to 518 to 99, 405 to 520, 405 to I-90 to I-5, 515 to Rainier, and more). But frequently changing the routes to optimize for time efficiency kept me in a constant state of confusion. The way to get places would never stick in my mind (e.g., one day this route, tomorrow another route, the next day yet another). And as I drove, I’d listen to podcasts or audio books the entire way, not focusing much on the route—just whether to go straight, turn right, or turn left within the next 500 feet.

On top of this, the map constantly rotated so that I was always looking forward, and my only directions were straight, right, or left. By constantly rotating into an egocentric rather than allocentric point of view, I would lose any cardinal sense of where I was. Egocentric refers to the first-person perspective of the moving vehicle, while allocentric refers to an external, third-party perspective. I never got a sense of where I was in the context of the map or how my current direction related to nearby landmarks.

The overall result of all this was to become more reliant on the app to navigate me. Even if it was just saving a minute of time, I’d given up trying to route on my own. I adopted the perspective that the routing algorithm knew best. It just took a few experiences of rejecting the recommended route, only to end up in congestion due to an unforeseen crash on the main route, to sigh and trust the app’s all-seeing knowledge. I should’ve listened to the app, I thought.

Given all this context, when I saw a book titled Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World, by M.R. O’Connor, I decided I needed to read it. This book just scratched the surface of an area I knew almost nothing about. I learned that wayfinding is a robust domain that has been the focus of countless research and studies. Did reading this book teach me the secret to wayfinding? Not really, it’s not a “self-help” book. Wayfinding isn’t a “simple trick” that can be learned overnight, but there are some attitudes (like paying attention to the environment around you) that lead to becoming better at wayfinding.

Questions about wayfinding

In Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World, M.R. O’Connor asks these questions:

  • “What happens when we outsource navigation to a gadget?” (5)
  • “What exactly is it that humans are doing when we navigate? How and why do we do it differently from birds, bees, and whales?” (6)
  • How has the speed and convenience of technology changed how we move through the world and how we see our place in it?” (6)
  • “What if GPS is a gadget that [severs] the individual from direct experience and generational knowledge of a place?” (14)

As you can see, there’s a strong interest in how technology, specifically GPS, has influenced our thought patterns when it comes to wayfinding. Like so many books in this genre, the man-vs-machine theme surfaces and gives us pause about the way technology is influencing our lives and changing our brains.

Overall argument about wayfinding

What is wayfinding? One geographer says wayfinding is “the ability to determine a route, learn it, and retrace or reverse it from memory through the acquisition of environmental knowledge” (O’Connor 16). Wayfinding is literally finding your way, especially without a clear set of turn-by-turn directions guiding you each step of the way, to get to a destination.

Wayfinding and navigation are topics of mystery in the scientific community. Animal wayfinding tends to be the most impressive, with bees, ants, whales, migratory birds, salmon, etc., performing unexplainable feats of wayfinding, sometimes through a magnetic sixth sense. (Apparently, bees communicate directions with other bees by vibrating at an angle in relation to the sun to indicate direction, and vibrating for a length of time to indicate distance of travel.)

But beyond the miracles of animal wayfinding, human wayfinding is also interesting because wayfinding connects with our scientific reasoning and imagination. Wayfinding isn’t just a matter of imposing a Cartesian map in your head to make sense of your surroundings. Wayfinding requires you to derive inferences and conclusions from small environmental details. It’s a skill that arises from an ability to “feel the land” as well as from cultural and experiential knowledge about a place.

Wayfinding taps into the spatial centers of our brain, the hippocampus, and is closely connected with memory. Think about how the Greeks used memory palaces (loci) as a way of storing information in individual rooms. Storing the information in a place allowed them to more easily recall it. That’s because the hippocampus isn’t just about manipulating spaces and places but also storing memories in those places. Consider episodic memory, such as remembering where you were during a historic event. I still remember exactly where I was when Mt. St. Helens blew in 1980—fishing at a pond with my dad near his work. In short, memories and places are intertwined. In fact, one reason scientists study wayfinding, O’Connor explains, is because wayfinding is a way to get to memory. Then along the way, scientists also become interested in wayfinding itself.

Overall, from what I can tell, there’s not a single theory about how wayfinding occurs in the brain. However, metaphors like the hippocampus as GPS or having a map in your head don’t reflect the complexity of what’s taking place. A theme O’Connor returns to many times is that wayfinding is more like following music—a cadence that is rooted in various markers in time, and whose progress we can intuit even if we don’t see it. O’Connor writes, “Maybe the metaphor at the heart of navigation is not following a map but listening and intuiting the progress of a piece of music” (179).

The music metaphor disrupts the “map” metaphor for wayfinding. We don’t have a map in our heads that guides our sense of direction. Wayfinding is an experience in both space and time, and some say our brain connects vista points in sequence over time, such that one landmark triggers another visual sequence. Orienting by way of these landmarks is what’s called the beacon strategy. Other wayfinding strategies involve dead reckoning (“keeping track of every stage of a journey in order to compute one’s location” (174). Some navigate by following stories their ancestors told about the land, such as the Aboriginal Australians following “dreaming tracks,” which are “the network of Aboriginal trade routes and cultural thruways that crisscrosses the whole of the continent like a noospheric highway system” (135). People in Oceania approach wayfinding by paying close attention to wave patterns in open water (e.g., sailing to small islands hundreds of miles away).

In a broad statement, O’Connor says, “What is navigation really? Insights into time cells, social space, and music highlight how complex human navigation in the brain is: not just a calculation based on reading a Cartesian map but an unfolding memory or narrative sequence, human relationships, sensory experiences, personal history, or paths into the future” (177).

If there’s one enemy to the mental and social benefits of wayfinding, it’s GPS, specifically following turn-by-turn directions to get to a destination. GPS removes decision-making and spatial reasoning demands from our brains, potentially atrophying the hippocampus. This atrophy could extend beyond just getting lost more frequently but also spill into areas of cognitive decline, including loss of memory, identity, and imagination. There’s no study correlating GPS apps with Alzheimer’s, and the author is careful not to assert any relationship. However, even experts admit it’s hard not to speculate on some influence. Any part of the body or brain that you don’t use atrophies, period. And if the hippocampus handles more than just spatial reasoning but memory, imagination, storytelling, and scientific reasoning, then its atrophy might involve more than just getting turned around as you’re driving to Safeway.

In this series, I’ll look at how wayfinding requires close observation and immersion in the physical world gives rise to scientific thinking, how GPS affects our sense of wayfinding, and more.

I’ll interweave these ideas with my own experiences to try to make sense of wayfinding in my life. I’ll argue that our road-dependent infrastructure, specifically the bland suburban landscape, numbs any interest in taking stock of our surroundings and makes navigation more about finding the fastest route from point to point. Given this roadscape and our car-dependent lifestyle, with increasing automation, wayfinding will likely become completely outsourced to algorithms that optimize for more efficient travel times.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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